“Such a Nasty Woman”
Written by: Bert A. Spector
With only a week left before Election Day, Bert Spector dissects Trump's recent "nasty woman" comments and their relationship to leadership discourse.
Hillary Clinton: “My Social Security payroll contribution will go up, as will Donald’s, assuming he can’t figure out how to get out of it . . .”
Donald Trump: (interrupting) “Such a nasty woman.”
Sometimes, opportunities are simply too rich to ignore, and observations – even if they might be obvious – too significant to pass over. Such is the case with Donald Trump’s now famous interruption (and we know it’s famous because of the proliferation of “nasty woman” t-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, and other paraphernalia flooding the market within days of the third debate) of Hillary Clinton. So, let’s put aside the gendered dynamics of speaker interruption and examine, instead, the substance of the remark.
Aggressiveness, self-confidence, assertiveness – the characteristics we tend to associate with effective leadership – are taken to be masculine traits. Some people – not all, by any means, but perhaps more than we’d like to believe – are comfortable with such traits being displayed by males, but profoundly uncomfortable when they become apparent in the behaviors of women.
In Discourse on Leadership, I trace some of the foundational thinkers who helped explore the fallacy and peril of such thinking:
- In the 1930s, anthropologist Margaret Mead challenged the notion that “gender” and “sex” were naturally and inevitably linked. Her findings from “primitive societies” reported that significant gender differences were socially constructed and highly fluid notions, or temperaments.
- Four decades later, Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s study of a large American corporation focused attention on the degree to which traits associated with effective management coincided with characteristics identified as male: “a tough-minded approach to problems; analytic abilities to abstract and plan; a capacity to set aside personal, emotional considerations in the interest of task accomplishment; and a cognitive superiority in problem-solving and decision-making.”
- Virginia Schein added the phrase “think manager, think male” to the discourse. Her point was that managers of both sexes described requisite managerial characteristics in highly gendered, masculine terms. In casting a wider net beyond the United States, she found evidence of global gender bias, making it difficult for women to reach top jobs in international organizations.
These and other thinkers helped establish the gendered construction of leadership and the resulting imposition placed on women: expecting that they mold their behaviors and demeanor into a masculine stereotype if they wish to be considered to be leaders, and then criticizing them for violating the feminine stereotype.
We can and should revisit and remember these pioneering scholars. We can also “thank” – and I use the word with all intended irony – the candidate for his interruption and his four -word interjection, “such a nasty woman,” for encapsulating the toxicity of that belief.